Reprinted with permission from the Vocabula Review, December 1999, Vol.1, No. 4
(see it at the original site...)

The Wrong-Headedness of Linguistic Self-Righteousness

I recently received an email invitation to subscribe to The Vocabula Review. Before deciding, I browsed the archives on the web to get a flavor of the newsletter. Much of what I found was the by now rather old (read clichéd) lamentations on the declining state of English.

For decades and even centuries, these arguments have been thrown in vain in the way of relentless language change. Prescriptive grammar is as presumptuous, as naive, as futile as prescriptive meteorology. Language and the process of language change are natural phenomena. They go on, indifferent to all of our wishes and musings about what should and should not be.

Language is an amazingly complex thing because it is for the most part the very embodiment of how the human mind works. I believe that what defines humans is their ability to manipulate thoughts, meanings, the boundaries of reference of things concrete and abstract. Language is the tool. When a concept does not serve a need, the boundaries of the "semantic space" it envelopes can be made fuzzy to add nuance, metaphor, poetic ambiguity, or just a new point of view to the concept; they can be moved to have the concept include more or less space. This is what gives language its power and what gives humans the ability to create.

Language is not set in stone. Every utterance of every word is a metaphorical use, not exactly like any use ever made of it before. That is why it is also the very nature of language to change. It is, as are traditions, dress, shared history, collective memory, and much more, part of Culture. I use the word here with a capital C (a usage picked up from Alton Becker, Professor Emeritus of the University of Michigan, and from Kenneth Pike's view that language is part of this larger context) to refer to the entirety of what makes up a group's identity, customs, knowledge, and so on. Language is inextricably joined with Culture, a chicken-and-egg relationship. Culture is not static. We do not dress as we did 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago. We do not have the same customs or values as we did 100 or 500 years ago. We do not speak or write as we did. Nor should we be expected to.

Though I would love to lay out all the arguments I have been collecting over the years against blind prescriptivism and the bases for them, I have only a fraction of the time and space needed to even touch on them. This is probably just as well because, just as most of the pinings and whinings of prescriptivists have been repeated many times, so too have the arguments against them. It is unfortunate that they do not get as much airtime as the more compelling sky-is-falling scenarios. And so, I hereby throw my own feeble rantings in the way of relentless prescriptivism.

Since language necessarily changes over time, as does much of human behavior, thereby creating differences across social and physical distance, it is not only futile and foolhardy to be prescriptive in grammar, it also reveals a lack of understanding of the nature of language. Though convention has its place, the notion of prescriptive grammar beyond mere convention is wrong-headed.

The Self-Appointed Linguistic Police

Through the years, we have been subjected to the seemingly enlightened views of people like William Safire, Edwin Newman, John Simon, even Kingsley Amis. I use the term seemingly quite deliberately. They go on and on about the deterioration of English. They tell everyone how to speak and write, what is acceptable and what is not. Long before I began studying language, I wondered about these people's credentials and was appalled by the audacity of what amounted to telling people that the culture they belong to is somehow wrong. There are many more who play the role of Chicken Little. Bookshelves are crowded with the lamentations of those I call the self-appointed linguistic police (SALP). That these people are articulate in English should in no way be taken to mean they have credentials to speak about correctness. I say this for two reasons.

First, when reading the scoldings of these people, one finds no evidence, despite their talent for writing, that they have ever studied linguistics, that is, the scientific study of language, and so one must wonder about their authority to discuss certain aspects of language structure, history, and use.

Second, and more to the point, I will venture dangerously close to the position that no one has credentials to speak about "correctness" in grammar because there is no such thing as "incorrect" when it comes to the speech of a native speaker of a particular language or dialect. If any notion of correctness exists, it can only ever be a description of what is and never a prescription of what someone, especially someone from outside the language or dialect in question, wishes would be.

The Origins and Persistence of Linguistic Self-Righteousness

Geoffrey Nunberg's article for the Atlantic Monthly is worth reading. But for a very few particulars, I agree with his interpretation of the "cold war" between traditional, prescriptive grammarians and linguists. Among other topics, Mr. Nunberg touches upon the history that led to the present situation. My own oversimplified summarization of that history follows.

During the nineteenth century, a kind of linguistic inferiority complex developed that led to traditional grammarians overemphasizing the influence of Latin on English. Ridiculous rules that have nothing to do with how English is or ever was have been handed down for so long in and out of classrooms that people have come to think they actually have justification. These rules include such inanities as avoiding so-called prepositions at the ends of sentences, avoiding so-called split infinitives, using the possessive 's only for living things, It's me is wrong and It is I is correct. They do not have any historical linguistic justification. I could allow myself quite a rant on these and other examples, but I will spare you and suggest finding an infinitely kinder discussion of some of them in the pages of Patricia T. O'Conner's Woe Is I.

These rules refuse to die because widespread ignorance of the real nature of language prevents even otherwise well-educated people from overcoming their blind adherence to a so-called tradition of what is considered "proper" (never mind that the rules were concocted rather than having any historical basis). Then, of course, there are always new SALPs appearing on the scene from time to time, adding to these rules: and and but should never begin a sentence, hopefully cannot be a sentence-level adverb, and so on.

Linguistic Ignorance

I use the term linguistic ignorance to refer not to ignorance of some idea of correct grammar but rather to a lack of understanding of the nature of human language and how it really behaves.

The average person knows what the basic units of chemistry are, the basic laws of physics, what a molecule is, what gravity does, that lights work because of electricity, that living things are composed of cells that interact. But the average person does not know the units of language and their relationships; that language is made of phonemes, morphemes, phrases, clauses; or about how these interact. Most people do not know that the processes of language are physical, physiological, psychological, emotional, social; nor do they know that nearly all words and most concepts in any particular language (including their own, the language that is the tool for nearly all of their thoughts and ideas) are arbitrary. The meanings of words, their connotations, their usage, the concept of tenses, cases, genders, and so forth, whether their language even has them, particular variations in pronunciation that distinguish phonemes and all the differences among regional and class dialects are never static and are in their very essence arbitrary.

These aspects of language are defined and redefined continually by a strange and ever-changing mix of the nonarbitrariness of some properties of the natural world (for example, the physiology of human mouths and the physics of air flow) and the historical, evolved, and highly arbitrary trappings of Culture. For example, what concepts a group of people finds important to represent in dress, in behavior, in music, in architecture, and linguistically in syntax, grammatical forms, creation and maintenance of individual words are all transient and arbitrary. Until each person realizes that his or her own world view is as constrained by language as it is freed by it, and that every native speaker of every language is in the same boat (or, better put, that each is in a similar but different boat), people will forever be misunderstanding each other at the most basic level, and in a sense never quite understanding themselves. More to the point here, if people understood the arbitrariness of their own preferences, they would feel less compelled to correct others.

What Is Language?

In this section, the use of the words choose and decide are figurative. Further, the use of the word language also implies that the same characteristics hold for a "dialect," the language of a subculture or even an "idiolect," the language of an individual.

When I first began learning about languages and linguistics, I believed all humans live in the same world. Reality, after all, is reality. In a person's mind is a "semantic space," with a very large but likely limited number of dimensions. Each dimension's axis is a spectrum, a continuum of meaning, of representation of some part of reality. Different languages choose which dimensions are important enough to bring explicitly to the surface of language. Now, I have come to believe that though some dimensions are shared by some languages and dialects, very few can be considered universal. As a group, as a Culture, we may very well choose to divide those dimensions differently as, for example, different languages have different words and concepts to divide the spectrum of colors. Let's look at one example of how even the manifestation of a possible universal can be Culture specific.

All languages seem to have a continuum that goes from object reference on one end (noun), through description of objects (adjective), to description of events (verb). Let's call it the NtoV continuum. In most western languages, this is divided into three parts: nouns, adjectives, and verbs. In Chinese, we could say that the continuum is divided in two: nouns and verbs (some verbs may have to be translated into English with be plus an adjective, but that in no way implies that there is an underlying three-way division in some universal NtoV continuum. It only implies that English is not the same as Chinese. In Japanese, NtoV is divided into four. There are nouns, noun-like adjectives, verb-like adjectives, and verbs. I will not go into detail here, but anyone who has studied Japanese knows that the verb-like adjectives have only some of the forms of verbs (for example, tense and negative but not formal and informal). The noun-like adjectives require the copula, do not have any of the verbal forms, and when standing alone behave just as nouns do.

Then, and possibly more interestingly, some dimensions, I am more or less convinced, different languages or Cultures do not share at all. Chinese does not have tense in verbs, number in nouns, and so forth. English lacks in its verbs the depth of the Japanese verbal system in the realm of formality, the grammatical manifestations of "in-group vs. out-group," but the reverse is true in the realm of complex time-tense relationships.

The semantic space we each carry around has been defined by our language and our experience. None of this is to say that some thoughts are not expressible in one language or another. Language is, that is to say, all languages are, wondrously fuzzy. We can push the boundaries of our semantic space anytime we need to. That is what good writing, poetry, and even creativity are all about. I would go so far as to say that that is what human intelligence is all about. As stated earlier, in a sense, all language use is metaphorical and poetic. Because each language, dialect, and individual has a distinct way of thinking, a distinct way of pushing boundaries, a distinct sense of metaphor, and because these are constantly in a state of change, it is necessarily, essentially, and ultimately impossible to prescribe language usage. Again, it is as absurd as prescriptive meteorology.

Language Learning and Language Change

The language and Culture individuals learn are what is around them. They are learned simultaneously. Much of language change is like Culture change. Interestingly, people who prescribe language use sound a lot like those who are prescriptive in their attitude toward Culture change. Those who complain about the way people dress or the music they listen to, because it isn't what used to be, sound a lot like those who complain about a new word or a new usage of an old word.

The whining is a mix of nostalgia (strangely, often for something that never even existed), self-righteousness ("there is a right way and it is mine") and, as I have mentioned, ignorance of the reality of the laws governing and of the myriad variables involved in language change.

Why do there exist different Cultures and languages? Because they evolved, not unlike animals, over eons in differing degrees of isolation from each other. Isolation, which can be due to geographic, economic, racial, or generational separation, leads to separate evolutionary tracks.

The kinds of change are many. Here I will mention only a few examples, with little explanation. There can be differences in phonology (the difference in the aspiration of voiceless stops between South African English and most other dialects), vocabulary (bag or sack; lift or elevator), syntax (American English: "I have a headache"; Indian English: "I am having a headache"), and so on. Changes occur over time even to one dialect: for instance, changes in the transitivity of a verb, changes in the part of speech of a word.

It is as silly to complain about differences in language from dialect to dialect as it is to complain that snakes have no legs; one is comparing two separate evolutionary tracks. In the case of differences arising over time within one dialect, we should remember that each of our opinions is based on a mere snapshot of the world. A lifetime is not long enough to determine which language trends will endure. We must view language, Culture, and dare I say, human progress, as a geologist views a landscape — that is, with an appreciation of the present and of how it fits into a much longer time scale. We may like to think that Mt. Everest is rock solid, but it is changing height and location as we speak.

Standards, Conventions, and Linguistic Bigotry

Am I a linguistic anarchist? Do I feel that anything, absolutely anything, goes? Yes and no. I believe that language, like all other aspects of Culture, is not something that can be steered or stopped. The behavior of different groups will evolve in different ways because that is what humans do. It is the nature of the beast. However, I do understand that there also exists the necessity to get things done.

Communication between groups is necessary. That is why we have conventions. A convention concerning basic rules of language use is handy so that when I write, making allowances, I can expect others, making allowances, to understand. I see this convention as a lingua franca, nothing more. We should encourage those who are not comfortable using this convention to become so. But we should not discourage those who are fortunate enough to have other languages and dialects from keeping them as they also accept the convention. We should not tell them their grammar is "wrong." Speaking several languages allows one to communicate with more people in the world. We should envy those who are multidialectical as much as we do those who are multilingual.

The problem with talking about a convention as a description of some ideal is that people forget that it is merely a convention. That one group of people agrees to drive on the right or the left of the road is arbitrary. There is nothing inherently better about one way or another.


I hope someday to have enough time to collect my unkempt thoughts into a form that might help undo the damage I believe linguistic luddites have done. The book I envision would "tell it like it is," as does American Tongue and Cheek by Jim Quinn, a book that should be read by every English speaker who feels even a smidgen of linguistic smugness. It would have all the linguistic knowledge of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. It would also contain examples from many dialects, from many languages, examples of phonological, syntactic, and semantic variation. It would be a book that overwhelms the reader with the immensity of the manifestation of variation in language, much as peering up at a clear night sky makes one feel small and yet somehow privileged to be a part of something so large.

In conclusion, I would like to urge everyone interested in language and especially those who feel compelled to promote some ideal of usage to remember that with regard to language use, it can only be convention. The nature of language prevents it from ever being more than that.

Alan Pagliere

Lakov, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.
O'Conner, Patricia T. 1996. Woe is I. Riverhead Books.
Pinker, Stephen. 1995. The Language Instinct. HarpersPerennial.
Quinn, Jim. 1980. American Tongue and Cheek: A Populist Guide to Our Language. Random House.